The biker leader stood before our church, beautiful "sleeves" from wrist to upper arms. His moniker is "Sober Joe" because at that time, he had been clean for about 20 years (he still is clean). Haltingly, he said how honored he felt to read the scripture because a little more than a year before, he was "among the lost. And, now, I am reading God's Word to you."
Paul commanded Timothy, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1Tim 4:13). In that day, only a few could afford a copy of even a page of the Bible. Thus, the reading at church was the only opportunity most had to learn the word of God.
In sharp contrast, in many churches today, the scripture reading is assigned to the men who can do little else but wish to participate in the services, or to a boy for training and encouraging purposes. That most of the congregation turn to the passage and read along shows they have been conditioned to expect a muttered, barely understandable reading. Does this show proper respect to God's word? Those who read well are seldom allowed to do so for that would take something away from those who can do nothing else. When, in fact, those often cannot even read the word with proper respect and clarity.
The reading of scripture should be a strong part of our worship. First, we must teach this along with the proper honor and respect for God's word by both the reader and by the hearers. Before the advent of printing, even illiterate people could memorize readings upon hearing them once. We cannot do that, but both the reader and hearers can give that level of attention to the word of God. Joe had obviously practiced and was prepared to honor the word as God's.
In our culture, we stand to show respect, for the bride, for the national anthem, for the funeral, etc. How much more should we stand for the public scripture reading?
Once upon a time, I insisted that the citation not be announced until after the scripture was read. Turning to the passage to "read along" inadvertently communicates that the verbal reading is not very significant. What is the reader's motivation to read with passion, to learn to read punctuation, to enunciate? Those who care are reading it anyway and the others aren't listening anyway. So, anyone who can mutter and speed read through the text and scramble back to their pew is acceptable.
Men must be taught the high honor they have been entrusted with when they are allowed to read God's word publicly. Joe was not taught this, but knew it from his new heart. They must see that it is not sufficient to read the passage through a couple of times during Bible class and then stand to read the Holy Word. Young men should be encouraged to first learn to read and then be allowed to do so.
I once asked a well-spoken and knowledgeable man why he would not lead public prayer. He replied that the prayer was so important that he knew he would be nervous and was afraid he would mess it up. Would to God that some would adopt that attitude of importance and respect toward the public reading.
Elders can assign a young man to a good reader to practice for a reading to be done a month or more away. They can practice together until the young man is ready. The next time, he could be assigned to a different good reader where he will learn other facets of good reading. If he will not make the effort or has not learned, the trainer should do the reading. Men who will not make the effort to read well can also be asked to participate in such a learning program. Are we more interested in not offending a member than we are in honoring God's word? In fact, might not a negative reaction show a deeper need for spiritual training than for learning to read well?
The goal of public reading is that the hearer be able to understand without following along in a Bible (which can be problematic with so many translations anyway). I recall an anecdote told by one of the teachers at Florida College: In pioneer days, a blind preacher kept his youngest son home from the fields to read the scripture to him in preparation for next Sunday's sermon. If he did not understand, he made the boy read it over and over until it was clear to him. It was said that when the boy grew to manhood, many a dispute over a passage was settled by asking him to read it aloud. His reading communicated the meaning so clearly that the dispute was settled without further argument. I have tried to learn to read that way. I believe our public readings should have that same goal.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed Jehovah, the great God: and all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with the lifting up of their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped Jehovah with their faces to the ground…and the Levites caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading. (Neh 8:5-8)